Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s novels have always seemed waif-like to me; slight, ethereal wisps of poetic prose that can be read in a single sitting. Night and Day, her second novel, couldn’t be more different to this impression; it has far more resemblance to the doorstop length sagas of her father’s contemporaries than to her later works that so epitomise the modernism of the 1920s and 1930s. It took me a long time to read; partly due to the sheer amount of words, but also because I was enjoying it so much that I wanted to remain immersed in it for as long as possible. It is an intriguing mix of 19th and 20th century, of classic and modern, of past influences and forward thinking innovation. Despite its seeming distance from her later novels, it is still unmistakeably Woolf. Only she could write the magnificently atmospheric scenes of misty twilight walks in London, only she could write with such passion and insight of the importance of work to a woman, only she could bring to life the quirks of a family whose existence is enshrined within the memory of famous Victorian ancestors, and only she could create prose with moments of beauty so profound that you can’t help but stop and revisit them again and again, drinking in the words with a thirst that can’t be satiated. It’s not her best work, by any means, but it is certainly rippling with greatness, and is a must read for those who wish to understand more of Woolf’s development and influences as a writer.

On the surface, it’s a rather conventional love story. In places it reminded me of an Austen novel, and in others, a Shakespearean comedy. Whomever she borrowed from, Woolf owes much to the greats in her plotting, as she uses a very traditional three act structure that introduces our protagonists, moves them off to different scenery to throw a spanner into the works, and then brings them back to their original habitat to tie everything up with a neat and tidy bow. However, as this is Woolf, there’s much more to it than that, and she introduces many ideas, philosophies and wonderful idiosyncracies throughout the novel that make it uniquely hers, and uniquely of its time.

The main character is Katherine Hilbery, a beautiful, free spirited girl in her late twenties who lives on the infamous Cheyne Walk in Chelsea with her well to do, intellectual parents. Her mother is the only child of England’s most treasured poet, and is much feted by the great and good of society thanks to this connection. As such, Katherine has grown up in a home of ideas, of intellect, of literature, romance and reverence. History and ancestry weigh heavily upon her, especially as her days are largely taken up with helping her overly romantic and easily distracted mother write a seemingly never ending biography of her famous grandfather. Katherine is being pursued by William Rodney, a very eligible, achingly conventional would be poet in his late thirties, who thinks that Katherine is a perfect exemplar of womanhood and an ideal model for his wife. Pompous and earnest, he writes reams of terrible Elizabethan inspired drama and imagines himself desperately in love with Katherine, when really he doesn’t know her at all. He reminded me of Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr Collins in many ways, and I do wonder whether Woolf used him as an inspiration when she wrote this character; his melodrama and insincerity are absolutely hilarious. However, William isn’t the only one who admires Katherine; Ralph Denham, an idealistic young lawyer who writes articles for Katherine’s father’s periodical, comes along to one of her parents’ salons and falls in love with her at first sight. He too will join the pursuit for her hand, though this will be complicated by his close friendship with Mary Datchet, a sensible suffragette who works for the cause in a dingy office in Bloomsbury and lives alone off the Strand. She is hopelessly in love with Ralph, and is in agony in his presence. Woolf sends this motley crew on a fateful Christmas in the countryside, where Katherine’s cousin Cassandra will enter the action, and set everything spinning on its head…

This summary makes it all sound very light hearted and comical, but amidst the almost farcical elements, this is actually a very serious and ambitious novel about women and men and their search for personal freedom. Katherine delays marriage because she wants to be able to pursue her own interests and not be bound to anyone else. She is afraid of the sacrifices marriage will entail, but she is also afraid of having to remain dependent on her parents forever. As a woman, what real choice does she have? Is there another way? Mary thinks she is in love, but she gradually learns that her work is the only thing that gives her true satisfaction. Able to channel her passion and talents into a fulfilling form of self expression, Mary doesn’t necessarily need a husband; her work is sufficient, and this can be a legitimate way to live her life. This is a daring conclusion indeed for a novel written in 1919. Night and Day might be mainly about the difference between men and women, but it is also to a certain extent about the difference between the soul and society, and how we are often forced to behave in a way that is totally opposite to our desire in order to satisfy others and conform to the expectations of our peers. There is a darkness, an unfathomable depth within each of us that we are never permitted to expose to the light of day; how do we find happiness when so much of our true selves is forced to remain hidden?

There is much hand wringing, much angst, much waffling philosophy, and it is overlong, with too much of some characters and not enough of others; I would particularly have loved to have seen more of the magnificent Mrs Hilbery, who floats through the novel quoting Tennyson and dreaming of Shakespeare’s tomb. Also, I didn’t agree with the outcome, and I thought that Mary Datchet was given rather short shrift; much more could have been done with her character. However, overall, this is quite a remarkable novel, a bridge between Woolf’s early and later works, and arguably most notable for its brilliant depiction of London, for which this could feasibly be used as a tour guide. The characters all roam the streets of a smoky, gas lit London, walking for miles along the river, riding atop omnibuses, pounding the red brick streets of Chelsea, working in the tall black terraces of Bloomsbury, mingling with the faceless crowds on the Strand, stopping in cafes dripping with condensation, rambling through the exotic plants at Kew, watching the monkeys perform acrobatics at the zoo…London is a character all of its own, and is beautifully, passionately, lovingly brought to life in all its splendour. I don’t think any novelist can quite capture London in the way Woolf does, and Night and Day is definitely worth reading for that alone.

‘Although the old coaches, with their gay panels and the guard’s horn, and the humours of the box and the vicissitudes of the road, have long mouldered into dust so far as they matter, and are preserved in the printed pages of our novelists so far as they partook of the spirit, a journey to London by express train can still be a very pleasant and romantic adventure. Cassandra Otway, at the age of twenty-two, could imagine few things more pleasant. Satiated with months of green fields as she was, the first row of artisans’ villas on the outskirts of London seemed to have something serious about it, which positively increased the importance of every person in the railway carriage, and even, to her impressionable mind, quickened the speed of the train and gave a note of stern authority to the shriek of the engine-whistle. They were bound for London; they have must have precedence of all traffic not similarly destined.’

32 comments

  1. I’m *obsessed* with literary representations of London, so this aspect of the novel alone makes me look forward to reading it. Thanks for another great review, Rachel!

    1. You’re welcome, Diana – and I have been told to recommend you Dickens’ Night Walks by another reader who says it is a marvellous evocation of London – it is available as a slim standalone book or in The Uncommercial Traveller. Hope you can get hold of it!

  2. You may want to give Woolf’s The Years a try one day. I read it long ago and am thinking about a revisit. Its late in the works, and a more experimental form but still very readable. Would love to hear what you think of it.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Gina – I definitely want to give it a try and will look out for a copy. I am planning on reading all the way through Woolf so I will get to it at some point!

  3. I really enjoyed Night and Day when I read it several years ago. Your review has put me in the mood to reread it. Now I think it may have to come on vacation with me in a couple of weeks.

  4. One nevers tires of Virginia Woolf and can reread and enjoy all her books. Also she is an outhor who has been written about so much and yet I never get enough. Are we supposed to start Anna Karenina or are we all going to read at the same time ?

    1. I’m glad you are such an enthusiast, Enid!
      Yes, yes, please start – I am 100 pages in at the moment, but won’t post anything until I’ve read at least a quarter. Only 900 pages to go!!

  5. Ticking lots of boxes with this one, Rachel! I’ve been walking around Bowen’s London these past couple of weeks but there could definitely be more gas lamps and cobbles. And thanks a bunch for mentioning Mr Collins, we’re about to eat dinner soon and all I can think of is his contented groans of culinary ecstasy!

    1. Oh, Bowen’s London is so divine, isn’t it? I love her descriptions. I need to read another Bowen very soon! You’d really enjoy Night and Day – it’s much more straightforward than her other books so not difficult to read at all. Hahahaha oh Mr Collins! The greatest comic creation of all time!

  6. I have found Woolf’s works difficult in the past. This book is an exception as the characters are described in a way that makes them seem personal. The descriptions of London are out of this world. Thank you for guiding me to this book in a recent post. I am savoring each word.

    1. Yes, this isn’t like her later books and does feel more like a traditional story with fleshed out characters, which helps in making you feel drawn in as a reader. I’m so glad you’re reading it and enjoying it so much – it’s such a good book and I feel it gets overlooked amongst Woolf’s other works.

  7. After that lovely review I want to reread it!

    Apparently the character of Katherine was based on VW’s sister Vanessa. I’m not sure where I read that though, and whether it’s correct… A difficult thing to prove.

    1. Oh, thank you Helen – I think you should re read it!

      That’s interesting – the book is dedicated to her, so I suppose it may be. She certainly seems very Bell-like – independent, intelligent, practical…

  8. Whilst reading your review I’ve thought must read this, then oh no perhaps it’s not one for me, to yes I would like to read it. I think I shall wait to see if a copy comes along my path & if it does save it for a holiday time. I don’t think commuting & reading it will go together for me. Hope you’re still enjoying your holidays & the Olympics.

    1. I think you’d enjoy it, Rachel, but I wouldn’t say you’d love it to the point that you need to rush and get it right now, so yes, wait for a copy to find you and I think you’ll love it when the time comes. Thank you – yes I most certainly am! I bet you’re still reliving that opening ceremony, you lucky thing!

  9. Night and Day is one of my favorite VW novels, but I’ve never thought of London as a character in it before. You’re so right, though. I never need an excuse to reread Woolf, but I think I have one now just in case!

    1. I’m glad it’s someone’s favourite, Kate! I hope you do re-read it and can see how beautifully London is presented – it’s such a wonderful evocation!

  10. After reading your splendid review, I look forward to getting to know Night and Day. You put so much of the atmosphere in your article!
    Just yesterday, I watched the movie Mrs. Dalloway. I didn’t know it existed, and I really asked myself how this book could be turned into a movie as not much is happening. The movie is quite convincing, and Vanessa Redgrave is marvelous, but still I think there is so much more going on in the book. Although the film is quite dense, there is no way in capturing the different time levels and the feeling of passing time which is so mesmerizing in the novel. I guess it’s the same when telling the “plot” of Night and Day?
    I am excited you plan to read all of Woolf’s novels. Your website is such a joy!
    Best to you, Martina

    1. I’m so glad my review managed to entice you, Martina!
      I’m not sure I knew Mrs Dalloway was a film either! No – I think capturing Woolf on screen is immensely difficult – she creates such an atmosphere with her choice of words and I don’t think you can translate that adequately.
      Thank you so much Martina! You are so lovely!

  11. Anything V W wrote is of intense interest to me.
    I like the way Mrs Hilbery appears in other works (Mrs Dalloway and another earlier book).
    With books like these, we’ll never run out of great literature to read and re-read.

    Incidentally, the Guardian has a list of the world’s 10 most difficult books. It includes To the Lighthouse. Amazing! What is so hard about this gorgeous piece of writing? AND the list doesn’t include Ulysses (which I am determined to tackle very soon).

    1. I had no idea Mrs Hilbery reappears, Chrissy! I must look through my copy of Mrs Dalloway now!
      Yes I saw that – of all the VWs to choose, I would have picked The Waves as the most difficult. I thought that was an odd choice of theirs. And yes – I thought the omission of Ulysses odd too. Plus I hadn’t even heard of most of them!
      You are a much braver reader than me – it seems you have always loved VW whereas she has taken me a while to warm to – though now I would say I am definitely in love, though The Waves still intimidates me!

      1. Oh – and Mrs Dalloway appears in her first book, The Voyage Out, which I’m re-reading this week.
        The Waves is worth the effort though, don’t you think?

  12. This sounds a very interesting read. Rather shockingly, I don’t think I’ve read any Virginia Woolf novels (well, apart from Flush!) – which would you suggest as a good starting point?

    1. Oh Miranda, you must remedy that! I’d start with Mrs Dalloway, maybe…or To the Lighthouse….though Between the Acts is marvellous and mixes the lovely prose with a more understandable narrative…maybe start with Between the Acts and see how you get on!

  13. Lovely post! As with all the best posts on book blogs it really makes me want to read the book being discussed. I’ve always had a soft spot for Woolf with Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Bewteen the Acts being particular favourites but Night and Day now sounds like a ‘must read’ too!

  14. Love your summary – I’ve read N&D at least a thousand times and not once without a very profound pleasure! Came accross your delightful blog, having thought maybe I should find out what other people think it is about – you made no comment (or did I miss it) about the theme of truth and illusion, which I feel is one of the main lines of exploration in the book. But thank you!

  15. Well it was a little lengthy, but it was much more “readable” than some of VW others novels, that frankly I have abandoned halfway. Someone asked me, “why do you persist in reading her works”?. My answer was: the language, the description, the beautiful stringing together of words to create a beautiful thought. She is one of a kind, no one before or after has written like her. That’s why.

  16. Hello! I came across this post by chance after searching for a review on this book. I am looking for novels to add to my list for a reading challenge that I will be starting in January, and your review was just what I needed! I am unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf at this point, but I am really looking forward to reading her work. Are there other novels from her that you would recommend?

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